We need only glance at the supermarket tabloids to find the current follies of the British monarchy. But long before the Prince of Wales wished he were a tampon and Lady Di got those riding lessons, there was George III, the fellow who dispatched the Redcoats to the colonies, wound up losing them and later lost his mind.
Nicholas Hytner's film adaptation of Alan Bennett's witty and elegant play The Madness of George III was renamed The Madness of King George after youthful test audiences here wondered aloud how they'd missed parts I and II. Despite this concession to the MTV mindset, if such a thing exists, Hytner and Bennett have collaborated on a splendid transfer to the screen. Rubber-faced Nigel Hawthorne, who owned the role on stage, reproduces his complex portrait of an imperious monarch gone bonkers--complete with its unfettered satire of court manners and the divine right of kings, the pathos of a human being in torment and, by the end, admiration for an earthy leader (they called him "Farmer George") who not only regains his senses but emerges wiser from the ordeal.
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Prince Charlie might do well to run the video one evening over at the palace.
To most of us former colonials, George III has never been more than the tyrant who forced the Bostonians to dump their tea in the harbor. But heavy was the head that wore the crown. When we meet George here, it is 1788: He's still stewing about "paradise lost" (aka the United States), and he's beginning to act strangely--leaping onto the piano bench (and assorted ladies-in-waiting) during command performances, raving incoherently and generally acting like a royal pain in the ass. This puts Windsor Castle's customary pomp to rout (the film's most delicious source of humor), and it puts ambitions into the heads of the assorted knaves, schemers and catch-farts who surround the king--most notably his rouged and indolent son George (Rupert Everett), the Prince of Wales, who plots in Parliament to have himself named regent and seize the reins of power.
Meanwhile, the king's medieval "doctors" raise boils on their declining employer's back and gravely examine his feces for signs of insanity. Only good Queen Charlotte (regal Helen Mirren) and George's new equerry, Greville (Rupert Graves), seem to have his best interests at heart: They endure the royal sitcom like gentlepeople. Not so one Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), a primitive psychotherapist who takes no guff--not even from monarchs. While all Parliament laughs from afar at the lunatic, Willis manages to shock him out of his "madness." By the way, his ailment is now thought to have been porphyria--a metabolic imbalance--which apparently accounts for the pots of royal blue urine the court functionaries are always passing hand to hand.
The film is as high-spirited as it is tragicomic. Bennett, Hytner and the riveting Hawthorne know exactly how to balance the absurdity of George's imperial predicament with the fact that he is achingly human. "I fear I am not in my perfect mind," he declares, imagining himself King Lear. But isn't this the perfect time to re-examine--even as we chortle--the prerogatives and duties of monarchy? In the end, the raging buffoon, now becalmed, wins our hearts just as he learns his place. As parliamentary power slowly overtakes monarchical privilege, this wiser king says of his new, largely ceremonial role: "We must be more of a family--a model family."
Wonder if Chuck and Di are listening.